Arts and Entertainment

The Lasting Legacy of ABBA

Remaining a presence in the industry for over 50 years, our favorite Swedish Super Troupers have proved themselves to be legends of longevity.

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By Reya Miller

Few artists manage to survive the test of time in the ever-changing music industry. With the common practice of payola, the fluctuating tastes of the general public, and the constant pressure on artists to outdo their latest release, most ambitious musicians eventually find themselves dropping off the charts like flies, forgotten and lost in the boundless musical abyss. It has almost become a given for artists to lack longevity; even the most popular often find themselves losing relevance after their prime, leaving no lasting impact on their respective genres, let alone on the world's cultural scene.

The same cannot be said for a certain group of middle-aged Swedes clad in sequin-studded pants and folk platform shoes. ABBA, formed in 1972 by Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and their respective wives Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, had their big break to superstardom in 1974 with “Waterloo,” a record that won them The Eurovision Song Contest and topped multiple charts throughout Europe. In the following year, their 1975 album, “ABBA,” spawned the major hit “Mamma Mia.” This song would later become the centerpiece and name of the hugely successful musical in 1999.

By 1976, with their fourth album “Arrival” (1976) that produced the legendary single “Dancing Queen,” ABBA proved themselves to be one of the most prominent groups in the world. However, all good things must come to an end, and in 1979, Ulvaeus and Fältskog unexpectedly announced their divorce. Two years later, Lyngstad and Andersson separated as well, and after their 1981 release “The Visitors,” they decided to take a break. Despite this, their presence remained in the music scene, which was further amplified with the release of “ABBA Gold,” (1992), a compilation that repackaged their greatest hits.

After 40 years, ABBA have returned with their newest album “Voyage,” staying true to their roots by proving themselves to be “absolutely trend-blind.” Their lyrics reflect themes of parenthood, reminiscing old memories, lifelong friends, and regrets of the past. From beginning to end, ABBA’s familiar nostalgic landscape washes over the listener but with a blanket of maturity in the place of the expressive sentimentality of youth that characterized their earlier music—akin to a warm hug from your favorite grandparent. While their familiar, bittersweet undertones are still present throughout the tracks, they seem much more profound and heartfelt, reflecting their growth and wisdom at this later point in life. Like true artists on a canvas, ABBA mixes their signature symphonic crescendos, layers of beautiful vocals, and jovial countermelodies into an aged blend of wistful optimism for the future. For many, “Voyage” marks a definitive closing chapter for the band––a final goodbye to their fans.

So all things considered, how exactly has ABBA managed to top the tumultuous tides of the industry once again? While their songs are not traditionally considered mainstream in recent years, everyone and their mother seems to know a handful of them. In this sense, ABBA is a notable anomaly: while waning in relevance in recent years, they never completely disappear from the limelight––not constantly creating cascading ripples in the scene but rather remaining an unchanging, reliable boulder of evocative disco-pop in the middle of the sea. “Voyage” is a testament to their resistance to being forgotten with the album smashing records in several countries across the globe and bringing them back into the forefront despite their decades-long hiatus. ABBA has managed to survive countless eras of cassette tapes, CDs, and streaming services, and they don’t seem to be sinking anytime soon.

While trends in the music industry are continuously shifting, ABBA have stayed true to their commitment to the dance-pop mania of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s this aspect of their catalog that unites several generations of people around the world. In stark contrast to those of other pop musicians, ABBA's music is unapologetically culturally homogenous and exceedingly catchy. Taking direct influence from traditional Swedish folk music and European schlager, their sound is completely void of influences from genres like hip-hop, reggaeton, R&B, and soul—giving it a unique, northern-European flair that stylistically sets their discography apart from those of their contemporaries. Ulvaeus and Andersson's attempts to maximize the symphonic and choral elements of their recordings results in a meticulously harmonic production with each layer of sound adding new textures to their vivid soundscapes. Brilliantly juxtaposed, ABBA's expressive melodies, when stripped bare of the flamboyant piano, heavy drum mixing, and ambient synths, manage to permeate a bittersweet, immediate intimacy deep in your gut: a feat that speaks volumes about their mastery in their craft.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of their music is their mastery of the earworm—their music is easy to digest, their lyrics are tender, and one can’t help finding themself humming along after just a few listens. ABBA, the true predecessor of Phil Spector, has managed to unlock the potential of his eargasmic Wall of Sound. Their addicting sound is truly one-of-a-kind and, considering all of its aspects, it is difficult for other acts to emulate.

ABBA’s revolutionary impact on the world is undeniable with aspects of their music being found in every crevice of culture today. Their signature sound has served as a blueprint for several prominent producers in the pop scene including figures like Max Martin, a Swedish producer for leading pop artists today (such as Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, and more). Martin was inspired by ABBA’s orchestral elements and has stated how he “ripped off” their discography to write the “perfect pop song.” Tribute bands, such as Abbaesque, A-Teens, Björn Again, and Gabba have dedicated their efforts to spreading ABBA’s legacy worldwide. Their discography has also spawned several tribute albums, ranging from Cher's “Dancing Queen” (2018) and the London Symphony's Orchestra’s “ABBA Played by the London Symphony Orchestra” (1991). Perhaps the most notable piece of media they’ve inspired is the “Mamma Mia!” musical (1999), later adapted into a 2008 film and a 2018 sequel starring icons like Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried.

When the modern world around us seems to be moving so fast, sometimes we need a reminder that we can pause, dance, jive, and have the time of our lives. To this day, ABBA’s music remains a breath of fresh air, a refreshing infusion of the nostalgic sound that keeps us grounded when nothing else does. In essence, their discography is molded around the spirit of jovial escapism and personifies true, undiluted sentimentality. Though their recent release may signal a true end for their musical pursuits, their legacy and discography will continue to enthrall generations for years to come.